Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ache: A Poem for Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (video)

This is a poem inspired by Sen. Wendy Davis' 6/25/13 filibuster on the Texas State Senate floor (another great link with more info here).

Because I tend to overthink everything, a few notes on this piece:

1. I hope this doesn't come off as another opportunistic slam poem addressing current events in an attempt to go viral. Senator Davis' filibuster really crystallized some stuff I've been thinking about lately, and I wanted to just write that out and share it. It's a very inspiring story, after all.

2. There's something inherently ableist about the Texas State Senate's filibuster rules; so when I talk in the poem about "standing up," I hope it's clear that I mean that as a metaphor-- it's about being active, taking a stand, getting your hands dirty, etc.

3. This has been the busiest month I can remember in terms of ups and downs for the progressive movement. I realize that this filibuster may have just delayed a conservative victory. I realize that the celebration around this (and the end of DOMA) is existing side by side with the anger over the VRA, the trial for Trayvon Martin's murderer, and a hundred other things. This poem is about the immensity of struggle, how it can be beautiful and fun and painful and exhausting all at the same time, how it's necessary no matter how "ahead" or "behind" you may be. We can celebrate the victories, big or small, while we plan for the next battle.

Anyways, hope you like the piece. Keep fighting.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Aren’t There More Women Who Rap? A Case Study in How Sexism Works

Originally published at Opine Season

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on sexism in indie hip hop, and it’s something that continues to get traffic to this day, possibly because there aren’t a ton of people talking about the issue. One part of that piece that I think deserves a closer look is representation. At every level of the game—from platinum-selling superstars to hungry indie rappers to basement hobbyists—men outnumber women by sizable, indisputable margins.

Of course, there are many great female-identified MCs—Psalm One, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill, Medusa, Ladybug Mecca, Ana Tijoux and more, plus locals like Maria Isa, Desdamona, The Lioness, Grrrl Party, Dessa, BdotCroc and others. But proportionately, there should be many more. And the explanations we so often hear—“hip hop is about aggression and women can’t do that as well,” or “girls would rather sing than rap” are just too shallow.

By taking a deeper look at why women are underrepresented in hip hop, I think we can shed some light on why this is true in other areas of society as well. Sexism, after all, is bigger than just face-to-face misogyny or discrimination; it’s embedded into our culture in sometimes invisible, insidious ways.

One note: this is not about hip hop’s special relationship with sexism. I’m using hip hop as a lens here because I’m most familiar with it, but I’m sure the same stuff plays out in indie rock, novel writing, competitive axe throwing, stand-up comedy, the U.S. Senate and many other cultures. I just think the lack of female representation among hip hop artists is a great entry point to exploring how sexism functions in other realms.

Level 1: Cultivating a Love for the Music
It starts with the music. You hear a song, you like it. It has a nice beat, maybe a cool video. One song leads to another, leads to an album, a discography, affiliated artists, a deluge of music. For me, it was Goodie Mob, into Outkast, into Tribe, into Wu-Tang and beyond. For a kid today, it might be Kendrick Lamar, or Odd Future, or Macklemore, or someone else. There’s the gateway, and then there’s the path.

But look at all those artists I just mentioned. They’re all men. Some of them are explicitly misogynistic men. So even at this very first level of progression, young women face a hurdle—even if they like the music on a sonic level, there are far fewer women to relate to and see as role models. Add to this the fact that a significant portion of the men on the radio are saying terrible things about women, and we’re not off to a great start.

Level 2: Exploring the Art Form
Still, many young women will persevere and develop a love for not just listening to rap, but creating it too. This process can take many forms—maybe you just start freestyling with your friends at the lunch table, or participate in a hip hop youth arts program, or you have a relative who shows you around their home studio.

But again, sexism impacts the journey. Because of the various level 1 hurdles, it’s more likely that your lunch-table friends who rap will be guys. Will they accept you? Will you feel comfortable in that space? We have an image of the fiery young woman who knocks down the door into the boy’s club and gains acceptance through sheer pluck and determination; but what if you’re not an instant virtuoso? Or an extrovert? Will the men who facilitate the hip hop arts programs push you into singing the hook or writing a poem instead of rapping? Will all the airtime be taken up by the boys? Who owns the studio? Who mixes the tracks? Who’s making the beats? Who can be a mentor? I know this is anecdotal, but I don’t think anyone will argue the fact: it’s men, men, men.

I’m not saying that women can’t relate to or network with guys. But part of male privilege is the ease with which we form these relationships. Sexism may not always be about an explicit, discriminatory act; sometimes it’s just about the lack of this kind of privilege, the additional hurdle, the uphill battle.

Level 3: Building Your Career
But again, some will persevere. Let’s say a young woman is now very much an MC, with a style, some experience, and an album’s worth of songs to give to the world. What’s next?

The answer is a lot more networking. Making music is one thing; getting it heard is something else entirely. Now you need to reach out not just to fans, but to the tastemakers and gatekeepers who can get you to your potential fans: college radio DJs, hip hop bloggers, local music writers, booking agents, promoters and other artists. I probably don’t have to say it at this point, but statistically, these are almost all going to be guys.

It’s important to note that some of them may be nice, supportive guys, too. But even if none of them are outwardly misogynistic or creepy or anything, it’s still about the ease of the relationship, the ability to relate to another person’s story, the subconscious ways we judge each other based on appearance and identity. And sure, some of them possibly will be creeps, which doesn’t help.

Level 4: Getting Famous, or Just Making a Living
If you want to be successful as an MC, it comes down to some combination of talent, work ethic, networks and pure-capture-the-zeitgeist-marketability/luck. And each one of these factors is impacted by the communities through which we move. Your talent is your own, but the quality of your music will always be impacted by your collaborators—which producers you can get to work with you, what kind of mentoring relationships you can set up, who you can call on for guest spots, etc. You may be the hardest worker in your city, but hustle doesn’t happen in a vacuum; you’re constantly building with people, attempting to persuade a particular audience to give you a shot, contacting DJs, promoters and more. ALL of this is impacted by male privilege and sexism, as we’ve seen at each level so far.

There’s more: will music writers talk about your music, or will they just talk about how you’re a “femcee?” Will potential fans give you a shot even if you’re not conventionally pretty, since our society places so much value on women’s appearances? Can you rap about whatever you want, or will you be expected to speak for all women everywhere? If you want to have a family, will your partner take care of the kids while you’re on tour, or will you be expected to do that? The list goes on.

This is what we mean when we talk about male privilege. It’s not that men “have it easy;” being successful is hard no matter who you are. It’s just that women (or more accurately: anyone who doesn’t identify as a stereotypically masculine man) face these additional hurdles, and they’re hurdles that, as men, we sometimes don’t even have to think about.

It’s Bigger than Hip Hop
I can’t stress this enough: this isn’t just about rap. This is how sexism works everywhere. It’s not always about the word “bitch” or the boss sexually harassing his assistant. It’s about the male-dominated networks that have been built over the course of decades. It’s about the “good ol’ boys” club and how advancement in any system is tied to your ability to relate to the men at the top. It’s about seeing a 95-to-5 male-to-female imbalance in a particular institution and thinking that that’s perfectly normal.

The good news is that there’s plenty we can do about all this. With hip hop, solutions may lie in more intentional concert lineups, programs set up specifically to reach out to young women who want to rap (or produce, or DJ, etc.), artists of all gender identities speaking out on this issue, and all of us as listeners actively promoting the artists we support through our Tweets, our Facebook walls, and especially our dollars.

In other cultures and communities, solutions may look different. But whether it’s through building alternative institutions or organizing for change within existing ones, we can make a difference. The first step is stepping back and forcing ourselves to see the full scope of the problem. The second step is understanding that, no matter what communities we navigate through, we have the power to do something about it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Updates: Big Poetry Show, Essays on Feminism & Boycotting the B-Word, Fall Booking and more!

Okay, this is another "random updates" post, but that's just because so much has been happening this summer, and it's really all leading up to some big news/releases. Here we go:

1. Next Show: Me and the 2013 MN BNV team:
I'm the coach this year, and these young artists are spectacular. Come see them (and me) perform at the Coffee Shop NE in MPLS this Friday. That spot just remodeled and it's really great venue for this kind of show. If you can't make it, you can still help get this team to Brave New Voices in Chicago; we still need to raise some more money to cover travel expenses, and BNV is a life-changing experience for young leaders... so your donation is definitely going toward something positive. I'll be going to BNV this year too, so if you're in Chicago, get at me.

2. Opine Season: New Writing on Feminism and Boycotting the B-Word
I still have a weekly column over at Opine Season, and this month I've been focusing on gender/feminism stuff. My piece on MRAs is getting enormous amounts of traffic, and as followups I've written a piece on why I'm thankful for feminism and a piece on my decision to boycott the b-word. If you like them, feel free to repost!

3. Support Patrick Pegg and His One-of-a-Kind Kickstarter
I know a million people with a million kickstarters, and they're all worth contributing to. But this one is something special. Patrick (also known as PCP) is an MC/singer/producer; he's also a videographer (he shot the To Young Leaders video, as well as many of my live spoken-word videos); he's also just a beautiful human being. After his father passed away unexpectedly, he's made it his mission to document his father's art, 2000+ paintings. His kickstarter is about being able to set up a digital archive and more. It's an inspiring testament to the power and importance of art, and I hope you'll consider pitching in.

4. Booking for Fall College Shows
I want to come to your school. Aside from the whole spoken-word/hip hop thing, I facilitate discussions and give presentations on a range of social justice issues, from gender/masculinity stuff to race/white privilege stuff to the relationship between art and activism and much more. I'll perform, lecture, keynote, facilitate, or do all four in one visit. Check out my booking info here, and get in touch at

5. New Videos, New Music, New Poetry, MORE!
Kind of in calm-before-the-storm mode right now. Seven (!) videos on the way in the next few months, from brand new songs and poems to a couple tracks from You Better Weaponize. I also have a new EP called SIFU HOTMAN and a new mixtape called DUNGEONS both to be released before the end of the year. Details and previews for both coming soon! As always, follow on Twitter of Facebook for more frequent updates, links to cool stuff, and random nonsense.

On Boycotting the B-Word

Originally published at Opine Season

Any conversation about language is a can of worms. So I want to be very clear that this piece is about nothing more than why I don’t use the word “bitch,” and why I suggest other men don’t either. I’m not trying to outlaw the word. I’m not saying you’re history’s greatest monster if you use it. I’m not saying that this is the biggest threat to humanity ever.

I just don’t like the word. Not as a gender-based slur, not as an all-purpose insult, not as a synonym for “complain,” not as a synonym for “a particularly difficult task,” not even when using it correctly in the dictionary sense (just say “female dog,” assuming you find yourself in the bizarre situation of having to identify a dog solely by its sex). Not in any context.

And I think there are many reasons why we—as artists, as writers, as social media users, and as men—should stop using it.

It’s Offensive
Maybe you disagree. Maybe one of your female-identified friends doesn’t think it’s offensive. Maybe you think “it’s just a word, dude,” and that we should all just “get over ourselves.” But the fact remains: millions of people find the word offensive, regardless of how it’s used. They might think it dehumanizes women, or taps into a long, painful history of systemic gender oppression, or simply conflates “female” with “bad.”

And the thing about offensiveness is you don’t get to decide who gets to be offended by something. There’s no scientific formula—if millions upon millions of people find the word offensive, then it just is. You’re free to use the word anyway, but you’re not free to say that they’re wrong.

It’s Incredibly Easy to Not Use It
I’m a rapper. I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes, but rappers tend to use the b-word a lot. I know I have. But I haven’t in years. At some point in my development, I made a conscious choice to just stop using it—and guess what? My teeth didn’t fall out. I don’t stay up all night reminiscing about the good old days when I used to call everyone “bitches.” I can still express myself. I can still be mean to people or say edgy and offensive things—I just do it without using that word. Whether or not you’re a rapper too, there’s always a more interesting way to say what you want to say.

It’s a Distraction
To use another artist example: when you’re performing on stage and that word comes out of your mouth, a significant fraction of the audience is going to stop listening, even if just for a moment, and think about why you chose to use that word and what it says about you. Whether or not they’re offended by it—it takes them out of the moment. Even if you’re not a performer or public personality, the word still has this chilling effect. It kills conversations. It raises eyebrows. And it’s so easy to avoid.

It’s Not Cool
In the social media age, we’re in touch with thousands of people, and we tend to make our judgments about one another pretty quickly and decisively. So when I hear a guy say “stop being a bitch” or “look at these bitches,” I basically just decide to not take anything he has to say seriously. That word is starting to resemble the slur f****t in this sense: it’s a word that instantly brands you as ignorant and immature.

Because Language Matters
Language impacts thought; thought impacts action; actions become habits; habits turn into culture, into society, into laws. I used the term “boycott” here intentionally. With this kind of thing, it’s not really about “trying to do a better job.” It’s about quitting something, cold turkey. I did it, but the reason I don’t demand any feminist ally cookies for doing it is because it was so simple it hardly even qualified as “doing” anything. This is an easy battle. But if we, as men, refuse to engage at even this basic level, how can we be trusted to stand up for justice in any context? Let’s do better.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dark, Angry, Memorable Music that isn't Yeezus

Here's the thing: I love the type of music Kanye is making right now: dark, aggressive, challenging, dystopian, memorable, etc. The thing that bothers me, however, is that music critics and fans are so willing to talk about how innovative and unique and revolutionary it is, when they ignore a ton of artists making similarly dark, aggressive, challenging, dystopian, memorable music. I'm not saying that he doesn't deserve the attention (I've been a Kanye apologist up until very recently); just that he's not the only one pushing boundaries.

Add to this Kanye's recent lyrical output (ridiculously misogynistic, hyperbolically self-centered, etc.), and I'm just not interested in re-listening to (much less buying) Yeezus. If you're in the same boat, here are a few other options for when you want a soundtrack for smashing things:

If you still haven't heard Saul Williams' self-titled LP, GO GET THAT. It's one of my favorite albums ever-- incredibly dense, challenging, bone-shattering music that features snarling, singing, rapping and talking. So if that kind of thing is what's drawing you to Yeezus, you can get a lot of that here, but with some substantive lyrics too. Plus his followup album, "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust," was produced by Trent Reznor. Both LPs are worth your time.

I know for locals and indie-rap heads, this one is obvious, but to my many readers who still haven't heard of P.O.S., you should check out his work, especially his most recent. Where he's built a reputation mixing hip hop and punk/hardcore sounds, "We Don't Even Live Here" pushes his sonic palette even further, incorporating a whole range of electro (I won't even attempt to break that down into specific genres) sounds. It's an incredibly dynamic album too.

There's a part of me that doesn't WANT to like El-P. For sure, if you're looking for anti-misogynistic or politically correct hip hop, he probably shouldn't be your first stop. But on a purely musical level, he's undeniable. The clip I decided to post is for "Flyentology" featuring Trent Reznor, but both "I'll Sleep When You're Dead" and "Cancer 4 Cure" are jaw-dropping albums, full of dark, challenging, claustrophobic, angry rap music. He also produced Killer Mike's "R.A.P. Music."

There's more, obviously: Kill the Vultures, Plight of the Parasite, Death Grips, the list could go on. Even Dead Prez, whom Kanye has been name-dropping recently; while they get lumped into the new school "conscious" rap movement, let's not forget that the beats on "Let's Get Free" where pretty intense and weird. Any other suggestions?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why I’m Thankful for Feminism

Originally published at Opine Season

Because this is a follow-up to last week’s column on Men’s Rights Activists, it’s tempting to frame it as “an open letter to MRAs and critics of feminism.” But I’m not going to do that, for three reasons:

1. Let’s be honest: arguing in circles about terminology and engaging in endless link wars over studies and statistics never really convinces anyone of anything.

2. As I was outlining my response, I realized that this piece over at Jezebel of all places by Lindy West covers all the points I was going to cover. If you’re someone who has honest questions about feminism, patriarchy and MRA stuff, it’s a great place to start.

3. Most importantly: in the social justice movement, we spend far too much time distracted by extreme minorities of people who are never going to agree with us anyway. If 10,000 people read this, the percentage who identify as MRAs will be a drop in the bucket compared to random Facebook/Twitter friends, internet surfers, college students doing research, etc. So I’d rather write something for them.

Even though some commenter last week bizarrely demanded that I tell “the truth” instead of just “my truth,” I can’t really do that. I can only share my own experiences with feminism and feminists.

I got my start as an activist around the 2003 Iraq war protests. I was young and had no idea what I was doing, but I was constantly supported by all kinds of people—socialists, anarchists, artists, union organizers, students, hippies, veterans, moderates, and people from all identities and walks of life. The self-identified feminists, in particular, were some of the most effective activists I encountered. Because of ongoing debates within feminism, they had a firm grasp on the importance of intersectionality—understanding how struggles are linked, and highlighting the connections between different oppressions. They were also just good activists—able to write press releases, canvas door-to-door, speak in front of crowds, facilitate meetings and all the little things that go into any movement.

I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but I do: none of them hated men. None of them advocated for female supremacy. Most of them were women of color. Most of them were working class. A few of them were guys. None of them fit the stereotype. It makes one wonder where that stereotype comes from.

Today, my job takes me all over the country, performing and facilitating workshops on social justice concepts. Since many of the organizations that book me work on gender issues, I get to meet and talk with feminists with countless different philosophies and approaches to the work. Some of the stuff they’re working on: challenging rape culture, cultivating critical thinking skills and media literacy, working in solidarity with other organizations and their causes, advocating for healthy sexuality and access to effective sexual education, raising awareness around sexual assault in the military, fighting for trans rights, organizing for the inclusion of gender-neutral restrooms in public buildings, providing resources for people going through partner violence, holding leaders and media personalities accountable for their words and actions, defending a woman’s right to choose, challenging the rigidity of gender roles, organizing discussion groups for men around healthy masculinity, engaging in educational work around body image, and a million other things.

Again, notice that there’s nothing here about elevating women over men, or making men feel bad, or using blood magic to turn your daughters into witches. Most of these campaigns help men too. Most of these struggles are reactions to (often urgent) existing problems. All over the country, feminists are fighting for gender equity, because that fight continues to be necessary.

I’m trying to get at two things by sharing all this. For the MRAs, I just want to say: I know a lot more real-life feminists (as opposed to radfem strangers on Tumblr) than you do, and they’re committed, effective organizers who don’t fit your stereotypes at all. And for the rest of us, I want to say: one of the reasons that feminism is important is that it provides a framework not just for theory and ideology, but for action.

I could quote bell hooks over and over again, but this is a good one: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” She wrote this in “Feminist Theory: From the Margin to the Center,” and revisited it more recently in the excellent “Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.” I like this definition because it’s pretty straightforward, and also frames feminism not just as a theory, but as a movement.

It’s one thing to say “I’m one of the good guys” or “let’s all just be egalitarians,” but does that change anything? If you want to fight sexism, whether you’re a feminist, an MRA, or anyone, you have to actively fight sexism. It is not enough to just “be cool and hope for the best.” And feminism provides a rich history of action, approaches to activism, toolkits and much more.

I’m thankful for feminism because feminists work on issues that affect me and the people I love. I’m thankful for feminism because it proves that movements can evolve, from a movement of “rich white ladies” to a movement that understands how identities are intertwined and how liberation must be an ongoing, simultaneous process. More than anything, though, I’m thankful for feminism because it proves that people working together can actually make a difference. If we fight for the things we care about, we can win.

Feminism isn’t the only movement that demonstrates that, of course. And there are plenty of super legitimate criticisms of specific campaigns, individual activists and thought-currents within the larger movement. But if we are ever able to forge a coalition that can challenge injustice and oppression at every level, a feminist analysis is going to be part of it, and I’m thankful for that.

Monday, June 03, 2013

“Men’s Rights Activists” and the New Sexism

Originally published at Opine Season, where it got a million angry comments

As an artist who talks a lot about gender issues, I’ve run across men’s rights activists (MRAs) here and there over the past few years, never giving them much thought. But last week, a video of poet Kait Rokowski’s darkly satirical poem “How to Cure a Feminist” that I host on my YouTube channel went viral, and suddenly my inbox was inundated with comment notifications. I read all of them. A few examples:

"Sorry I’m pro equality, but feminism is a Rockefeller funded cult that hijacked the women’s rights movement. Trying to fight against peoples way of life is wrong.”

“Well it really depends what you mean by ‘feminism’. If you mean equality of rights for sexes then that’s great and that already happened in the west. If you mean dismantling patriarchy and rape culture and so on then it quickly verges on bunk.”

”Chauvinism is an ugly part of the human condition regardless of the perpetrators gender.”

“In some sense I find this poem to be sexist against men as it suggests most men express negative feelings towards all women.”

I realize that YouTube comments are the lowest form of human communication, but these are still fascinating. This is what sexism looks like in 2013: it’s not “Women sure are worthless and stupid” as much as it is “I’m a good guy who loves and respects women but feminism is evil because the systematic oppression of women doesn’t really exist.”

It’s a kinder, more well-intentioned sexism, but it’s just as harmful.

I’m sure there are all kinds of internal ideological struggles in the MRA movement (just like there are in feminism), but this is a consistent undercurrent. They believe in a kind of equality, but also that women’s movements have overreached—making men the new victims of sexism.

Women have made great strides in recent decades, after all, closing many gaps in higher ed graduation rates, improving media representation and earning more and more money. But has it been enough to compensate for centuries of inequality? Have these strides benefited all women equally? Have these strides translated into power? How many female presidents have we had? Congresspeople? Governors? Generals and admirals? CEOs and billionaires? Which gender is still stereotyped as strong, assertive, responsible and tough, and which is still stereotyped as passive, nurturing, dependent and overly emotional? I don’t need to quote statistics here—sexism saturates our culture; it’s everywhere.

“My female boss is mean to me at work” is not the same thing as centuries of institutionalized, systemic discrimination. If “beautiful women can get whatever they want,” then why haven’t we elected one president yet? “Sexism against both genders is wrong” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what sexism is. Any individual of any gender can be prejudiced or discriminate on a face-to-face level, but only one gender faces the glass ceiling, the ongoing, legalized regulation of their bodies, the significant wage gap for doing the same type of work, the deeply-engrained and consistently reinforced stereotypes about their being less aggressive, less capable and less intelligent, and countless other obstacles.

And the thing is, men are hurt by sexism. Rigid gender roles, for example, aren’t healthy for anyone. But it is not the same kind of “hurt,” and feminism definitely isn’t the enemy—it’s an invaluable analysis, a frame through which we can start to work toward real liberation for people no matter their gender identity.

The first step, however, is acknowledging that sexism—as in the historical and institutional economic, cultural and psychological oppression of women—is real. If we can’t start there, then we are working with band-aids, individual solutions to complex, large-scale social problems.

The lesson here is not that we should all go pick fights with MRAs; they’re an easy target. It’s that we should challenge ourselves to understand sexism (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) in this larger sense—it’s not just individual acts of harassment or discrimination, and the solution to it has to be bigger than “being better” on an individual level.

I realize that this is a can of worms and that there’s much more to be said. For some really good further reading, check out:

Stephanie Fairyington at The Atlantic: The Lonely Existence of Mel Feit, Men’s-Rights Advocate

Jessica Valenti at The Nation on “Could the Facebook Win Be Feminism’s Tipping Point?”

Many good links at Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog, including this one on the myth of “reverse sexism.”